Monday, 12 September 2011

Jamie Oliver is right - we need global action on obesity

May Shelton, Project Officer at Consumers International, explains the link between food marketing to children and non-communicable diseases.

With only days left before world leaders come together for the UN high-level meeting non-communicable diseases (NCDs), global public figures from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to former UK government chief scientist Sir David King have raised issue over the shocking levels of obesity worldwide.

Consumers International's work on junk food has been focused on efforts to tackle this global pandemic for some time. And today we publish a Manual for monitoring food marketing to children, which aims to reveal the real extent of the food and beverage industries' influence on children. 

Aggressive marketing to children of products that are high in fat, sugar or salt is a contributing factor to childhood obesity, a key risk factor for NCDs. As will no doubt be heard from many sources in the run up to the summit, NCDs such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease which account for an estimated 63% of all global deaths - a truly staggering figure, not matter how many times it is repeated.

Overweight and obesity is having an immediate, negative impact on children’s health and well-being and it increases their risk of NCDs in adulthood as well. Worldwide, the IOTF estimates 170 million school-aged children are overweight or obese. In addition, the WHO estimates that 43 million pre-school children carry excess body fat.

Reducing exposure to NCD risk factors early in life is essential for the future health of children worldwide. The rate of some NCDs, such as type 2 diabetes, amongst overweight children is already on the rise globally.

One of the challenges at the UN summit will be to find the answers to reverse the trend in adult and childhood obesity. And of course the issue is a complex one; the causes of obesity are the interaction of a range of factors, including social, environmental and genetic influences. 

However, as argued in this brilliant article, one obvious driver is changes to the global food system. Such changes include an increased supply of cheap, energy-dense foods; improved distribution systems which makes such food more accessible and convenient; and the more persuasive and pervasive marketing of such food to children.

A range of studies, including several reports carried out by Consumers International, have documented that the global food and beverage industry heavily targets children; that the marketing pushed at children are mainly for products high in fat, sugar or salt or for brands that are associated with such products and the marketing techniques they use are refined to have the biggest possible impact on children (eg using celebrities or cartoon characters that attract their attention and which children like). That such marketing directly influences children’s food preferences and choices has also been irrefutably proven. Our own Lunchbox Challenge is one such compelling example. Lets face it, marketers wouldn’t spend millions ‘engaging’ with children if that wasn’t the case.

It is the responsibility of government to protect children’s health. Relying on industry to self-regulate what and how they market unhealthy products to children just isn’t cutting it and is failing to protect children as evidenced in several reports; from the UK, US, Australia and Canada.

As we get closer to the summit the action-oriented outcomes and quantified time-based targets that civil society organisations had hoped for are being watered down, under pressure, from the tobacco, food, and drinks industries that, regretfully, are increasingly invited to the table as ‘partners’ in the formulation of global public policies within the UN and its agencies. 

If leaders are looking for answers to prevent obesity and thus help to eliminate the risk of millions of children suffering from and dying from related diseases they should stop focusing on the interests of industry and follow the recommendations by the WHO or the European Network Code and introduce policies that bring about strict controls on the ability of the food and beverage industry to market unhealthy products to children and young people. 

While some developed countries have some regulation to control marketing to children, it’s a new area in many low and middle-income countries. A first step on the road to policy development is to monitor the extent to which children are exposed to food marketing and to assess the influence of food and beverage marketing to children. 

Consumers International’s Manual for monitoring food marketing to children is designed to aid governments in developing such an evidence base. The manual is a practical step-by-step guide to monitoring food marketing to children that provides clear advice on research design and planning, data collection, analysis and presenting results.

Practical tools, such as the manual, provide a small but significant contribution to understanding the extent and influence of unhealthy food advertising to children and therefore the important role that restrictions on aggressive marketing directly to children will have on reducing obesity and NCDs worldwide.

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